My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Can a Biologist Fix a Radio?

There’s nothing like science humor to brighten my day so i was laughing hysterically when a friend read to me from Can a Biologist Fix a Radio? – or, What I Learned while Studying Apoptosis.

How would we begin? First, we would secure funds to obtain a large supply of identical functioning radios in order to dissect and compare them to the one that is broken. We would eventually find how to open the radios and will find objects of various shape, color, and size. We would describe and classify them into families according to their appearance. We would describe a family of square metal objects, a family of round brightly colored objects with two legs, roundshaped objects with three legs and so on. Because the objects would vary in color, we will investigate whether changing the colors affects the radio’s performance. Although changing the colors would have only attenuating effects (the music is still playing but a trained ear of some people can discern some distortion), this approach will produce many publications and result in a lively debate…

[Note: said friend sees this article as a call-to-arms, not simply science humor… apparently i’m not as big of a nerd as i think.]

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4 comments to Can a Biologist Fix a Radio?

  • Hi Danah:

    Thanks for the link to this article! I’m going to link to it from my own group blog on “Humans in Science.” Although it is definitely humourous (humoUr spelled with the ‘U’ on purpose!), I think I have to side with your friend. A lot of what the article had to say really resonated with my own experience as a biologist, and Figure 3 is a great illustration of exactly how biology would benefit from sharpening up its language and its thinking!

  • I would agree with your friend. This paper is definitely a call to arms (and a really entertaining one at that). In fact, I think this paper makes a very intresting argument, that, if you squint a little, would apply to social science and the reasons for why HCI designers and computer scientists are so frustrated with social science and it’s rhetoric and it’s science. How would a social scientist fix a radio?

  • Rawdeegee

    I love it! As a software developer in a bioinformatics research group, I totally share this cynicism. It is unfortunate, but it seems that people will confuse a particular methodology with scientific rigour itself, and thereby acquire a “blind spot”. A too common scenario: A practitioner in one of the “more analytical sciences” (mathematics, computer science theoretical physics or chemistry, etc) proposes a novel approach to a biological problem. A “traditional biologist” will too readily dismiss the idea as being overly reductionist and somehow lacking the “ineffable” biology. (Never mind that many experimental protocols are themselves extremely reductionistic.)

  • Hi, I found the link on Stacey’s site (though I am a regular reader here, not there) and, as a biologist, I liked the article. I do not see it as call-to-arms, though. But perhaps I do not see it the same way cell biologists see it….